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March is Canada's National Music Therapy Month—a perfect opportunity to explore the proven ways music can affect the body and its ability to relax, such as reducing heart rate and skin temperature. "Music is a powerful treatment tool when used correctly," says Adrienne Pringle, president of the Canadian Association for Music Therapy.
The Toronto-based accreditation body has certified more than 650 music therapists in Canada, many of whom work with a wide range of people from children with developmental disabilities to palliative care patients. But anyone can apply the principles of music therapy to improve everyday wellness, says Pringle. Here are a few key music therapy-based tips to boost your mood, combat stress or simply feel better.
1. Choose music that triggers powerful, positive memories.
Research has shown that when we listen to music we're fond of our brains' neurotransmitters release endorphins that act like natural analgesics. This is why music therapists only use "preferred music" and increasingly for treating pain. "The theory is that the brain can only take so much stimulus at once and music is a powerful distraction from the pain," explains Pringle.
Handy note To get the most health benefit from music, listen to songs that elicit strong, positive memories that take you back to meaningful times and places, says Pringle. "For many clients, that's the music you listened to in your teenage years and early 20s."
2. Stick with slower tempo tunes.
If your goal is to relax, apply "entrainment theory", which involves the merging or synchronizing of your pulse with the music's tempo. “When I'm working with an end-of-life client, I'll match the tempo of my guitar to his or her breathing and then slowly decrease the tempo of play until the patient's respiration is calm and peaceful," says Pringle.
Handy note For stress release, listen to music that falls into a tempo range of 60 to 80 beats per minute (and choose music without lyrics). If you're not sure whether your favourite songs fall into this range, get an metronome app with a tapping feature to gauge tempo, or check out Canadian music therapist Bev Foster's Room 217 CDs, which are designed for this purpose.
3. Create your own music.
"There's a huge health and wellness benefit to actively creating music," says Pringle. "The medical term is 'hyper-arousal discharge' and you get the cathartic release by participating in music, whether that's joining a community singing group or banging on a set of drums."
Handy note To help blow off steam at the end of a long day, take up a new instrument or return to an old one, join a singing group or seek out a music therapist who offers wellness programs. "Just make sure you look for one who has received formal training," says Pringle. The Canadian Association of Music Therapy accreditation is MTA.